Theory A: Gray hairs. "The way that we structure our live sets is, uh -- we know we're old," admits Wrens drummer Jerry MacDonnell. "We also know that we write some pretty good rock songs, like, energy-wise. So we come out strong, only 'cause we know at the end of the set, we probably won't have it."
Theory B: Hair of the dog. "We come out and start really wild and crazy," says singer and guitarist Charles Bissell, "and just gradually diminish, and eventually fall into a drunken slumber."
Perhaps some combination of the two explains why the first ten minutes of a Wrens set offer more shock, awe, intimidation and ebullience than a thousand monkeys dancing atop a thousand flaming typewriters. And we're not talkin' assisted-suicide-live-on-stage-type antics, either. These here are affable New Jersey gentlemen (no Sopranos, though some partake of falsetto) with gray hairs, Magnet-reading indie-rock mentalities and snore-inducing day jobs. "I am vice president of institutional sales for an institutional investment software company," MacDonnell relates. "I sell analytics and portfolio-monitoring tools and resources to investment consultants."
Mary Jane's Fat Cat, 4216 Washington Avenue, 713-869-5263.
Thursday, August 25. Jim Yoshii Pile-Up and Thane Matcek and His Band are also on the bill.
Men of this caliber do not ordinarily Bring the Rock.
So imagine the crowd's shock when the Wrens hit the stage and just go bleepin' apeshit, guitars flailing, sweat, fists and chairs flying, the spit lyrics to "Everyone Chooses Sides" thwacking you in the head from every conceivable angle. The nuclear power ballad "Happy" was even more grandiose, a slow-burn torch song that probably gave folks at the show I caught third-degree burns.
"We kinda wanna be in everyone's face when we come out, 'cause it's been a long time since anyone's seen us, and a lot of folks have never seen us," MacDonnell says. "So when we come out on stage, we wanna prove a point. We can write rock music too, and we wanna be in everyone's face. We're serious about what we do, and we love it."
You could hardly blame the Wrens if they hated it by now. The band first emerged in the mid-'90s as another aspiring four-dudes-with-guitars alt-rock juggernaut, best personified on the 1996 disc Secaucus, a fruitcake-dense affair with more shards of candy-colored intensity than a shattered stained-glass window. But the inevitable label woes would soon intercede: Grass Records mastermind Alan Meltzer, furious when the band refused to sign a big-bucks contract midway through the first Secaucus tour, pulled all promotion and vowed to make the next band that walked through his door famous "at any cost."
That band? Creed. It could've been the Wrens up there, striking Jesus Christ poses and getting sued by their own fans for sucking. Instead, seven years of label gymnastics, real-life dramatic interludes and overwrought studio perfectionism nearly buried 'em in the cutout bins of history, but the Wrens majestically re-emerged in '03 with The Meadowlands, inexplicable proof that four affable dudes with guitars can still stun and elate.
The record peaks immediately with a pair of mega-drama-bomb ballads: "Happy" and Bissell's "She Sends Kisses," which he (mistakenly) describes as a failed homage to Van Morrison and New Jersey kingpin Bruce Springsteen. That melodrama prevails throughout, perhaps most emphatically on the falsetto shuffle "This Boy Is Exhausted": "'Cause I'm caught / I can't type / I can't temp / I'm way past college / No ways out / No back doors / Not anymore / But then once in a while / We play a show that makes it all worthwhile."
The Our Band Could Ruin Our Lives approach is a common conceit these days -- listen to the Drive By Truckers' Decoration Day or, hell, watch Dig and Some Kind of Monster, the tell-all docs from Brian Jonestown Massacre and Metallica. Still, MacDonnell insists that, despite all the busted relationships and near-miss shots at stardom, the Wrens remain a worthwhile enterprise: "We had some crazy turns here and there business-wise, but it came down to the four of us really like writing and playing music together and recording. There's no pressure. We have no expectations. If people like it, great. If people hate it, fuck it. Who cares? We'll keep writing music just because it's fun to us again, and that was the most important piece. It sounds kinda canned and cheesy, but it's sincere."
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Of course, it's easier to say this after Magnet hailed The Meadowlands as the best record of 2003 -- every self-respecting indie outpost from Pitchfork on down has delivered similar praise, which perhaps gives the Wrens another reason for onstage prove-yourself bravado: They've got a mammoth's buttload of hype to live up to. "When you read a very nice interview, it kinda is teacher's pet-ish: 'Teacher likes me,' " Bissell admits. Not that he's complaining: "For four guys that didn't garner a whole lot of the real thing in real school, it maybe makes up for some sad-ass lacking on our end."
Self-deprecation is a common Wrens tactic. Bissell says the band tinkered with The Meadowlands so obsessively in the studio (i.e., someone's living room) that they actually threw a party to celebrate destroying the master tapes, so as to nip further tinkering in the proverbial bud.
Sadly, erasing ADAT tapes doesn't exactly make for raucous Jackass-style entertainment: "When you're erasing, nothing really happens," Bissell admits. "We're in this bar in the city. We brought a bunch of friends over. We just put the tapes in, hit 'erase,' and then we started drinking."
Alas, every bit as anticlimactic as a Wrens show is climactic. But then again, you wouldn't want the guys to strain themselves and get all sleepy.